State of the Race: A Short History of Mennonite Racial Statements, 1940-1979

Tobin Miller Shearer

In 1955, white Mennonite church periodical editor Paul Erb wrote, “Perhaps in nothing have our Mennonite people so completely conformed themselves to a worldly idea as in this.”1 He was not referring to dancing, watching movies, cutting hair (women’s! – not men’s), wearing wedding rings, or any of the other worldly pursuits deemed anathema by Mennonite church leaders at the time. He was referring to racial discrimination and segregation.

He did so on the occasion of the release of the 1955 Mennonite uber race relations statement, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations.” That carefully vetted document, largely a result of the wordsmithing provided by Guy F. Hershberger and Grant M. Stoltzfus, called the Mennonite Church community to repent of the sin of racism and embark on a “ministry of reconciliation” by working “against the evils of prejudice and discrimination wherever they may be found.”2

The 1955 document was one in a series of twenty-two race-focused statements that Mennonite bodies in the United States released between 1940 and 1976.3 By far the most high-profile of any of those statements, it was not the boldest, the most challenging, or the most theologically sophisticated of that set of twenty-two pronouncements. It was, however, the touchstone that statements for the next twenty-years – and beyond – referred back to and built upon.

Yet I am less interested in the impact of that particular statement than I am in the context of all but two of the twenty-two statements issued by Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren. For the three and half decades here examined, written statements about race by U.S. Mennonites were prompted by external political forces and almost exclusively a project of white men. Not once in any of those twenty-two statements did the white male authors identify, name, or evaluate their own racial identity. As a result, I will argue that, with one exception, these statements failed to address the underlying problem of white domination and supremacy in the church.

The story that I am focusing on begins not with the oft-touted 1688 Germantown anti-slavery statement because, as I have argued elsewhere, it was a document written to a Quaker assembly by practicing Quakers. It simply wasn’t a Mennonite document in terms of audience, sensibility, or authorship.4 Instead the story begins with the 1940 Virginia Conference statement that mandated racial segregation in church sacraments such as communion, footwashing, and the Holy Kiss.5

That 1940 statement – like only one other of the twenty-two I have documented – was released primarily in response to dynamics internal to the Mennonite community. In essence, the workers at Broad Street Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, had in their bishops’ eyes become too racially progressive. As a result, the Virginia bishops reigned them in by segregating the sacraments.6 When Broad Street leaders Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber resisted that racist doctrine, the bishops dismissed the couple from their posts.7

To be certain, the Virginia bishops also passed the segregation mandate in hopes of placating the critics who called into question their patriotism as a result of the Mennonites’ refusal to bear arms in the midst of World War II. By making the decision to conform to segregationist practices, Virginia Mennonites could at least demonstrate they were willing to cooperate with the dictates of a racially segregated and white supremacist society.

The first record I can find of a Mennonite group issuing a statement challenging racism – as opposed to instituting segregation – was a 1948 statement by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Conference in which they declared their opposition to “prejudices and discrimination against minority groups.”8 In keeping with broader national trends, few white majority Protestant groups issued any statements against racism until after the Federal Council of Churches issued their declaration of the same in 1946. In that year the FCC declared that “the pattern of segregation in race relations is unnecessary and undesirable and a violation of the Gospel of love and human brotherhood.”9

Prior to the 1955 Mennonite church statement issued in the immediate aftermath of the previous year’s Supreme Court Brown v. Board desegregation ruling, a study group meeting at Laurelville Mennonite retreat center in 1951 had released a general statement on Christian Community Relations that included a short section calling for action against “racial discrimination.”10 That same year, Lancaster Mennonite Conference bishops C. K. Lehman, J. Paul Graybill, and Amos Horst were tasked with drafting a statement on “racialism,” but the Bishop board failed to act upon or promote the “tentative statements” developed by the three bishops.11

The 1955 statement deserves its reputation as the principal document that defined the parameters of Mennonite theology and practice in response to – employing the language of the day – “race relations.” In addition to reviewing the biblical texts supporting racial unity, the statement declared racial prejudice and discrimination a sin, confessed complicity in that sin, and called for full integration of all congregations and church institutions, robust teaching on the evils of racial discrimination, and a “ministry of reconciliation” focused on correcting “the evils of racial intolerance within our society.”12

That same year Bluffton College in Ohio released a statement encouraging racial integration and advising students to carefully consider the “potential richness” and “painful consequences” of interracial marriage, a topic that received frequent and near universal attention by white people at that time.13

List of Twenty-Two Race-Focused Statements by Mennonites – 1940-1979

  1. 1940 Virginia Conference segregation statement
  2. 1948 Southwestern Pennsylvania Conference statement on race
  3. 1951 Laurelville Study Conference on Christian Community Relations
  4. 1951 Lancaster Conference Bishop board statement on race (limited action)
  5. 1955 Mennonite Church statement on race – The Way of Christian love in Race Relations
  6. 1955 Bluffton College Statement on race
  7. 1959 General Conference Mennonites: A Christian Declaration on Race Relations
  8. 1960 Lancaster Conference Statement on Race Relations
  9. 1961 The Christian In Race Relations Statement/Paper
  10. 1963 Mennonite General Conference statement on Reconciliation
  11. 1963 Mennonite Brethren Statement on Race and Baptism
  12. 1963 IN-MI statement on race Relations
  13. 1964 MCC Statement from Words to Deeds in Race Relations
  14. 1964 EMC Faculty Statement on Race Relations
  15. 1964 MCC Peace Section statement on race discrimination and human rights
  16. 1964 Virginia Conference Statement on Race Relations
  17. 1967 Virginia Conference statement overturning segregation
  18. 1969 Mennonite Church General Conference Statement on Urban-Racial Concerns
  19. 1969 Lancaster Conference Statement on the Black Manifesto
  20. 1971 Minority Ministries Council Statement to the Mennonite Church
  21. 1971 Lancaster Conference Statement on Racism
  22. 1976 Liberty and Justice Workshop statement

The 1960s then erupted with a host of statements – more than half of the total examined here – in response to national events and presidential prompting. In keeping with the efforts spearheaded by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to gain passage of a civil rights bill and President Kennedy’s June 11, 1963, civil rights address, white church leaders across the country – not just white Mennonites – issued race-focused statements and developed new race relations programs.14 In 1963 and 1964 alone, Mennonites generated seven official statements including denomination-level pronouncements by the General Conferences of the Mennonite and the Mennonite Brethren churches. In addition the faculty at Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia, released a statement against the “evils of racial discrimination” in 1964, the same year that Virginia Conference called for full integration of all their institutions.15 Yet they did not at that time address their existing mandate to segregate the sacraments. They would not overturn those segregationist dictates until three later when they did so in 1967.16

Through the end of the 1960s, all of the statements generated by Mennonites had been in direct response to national events or political promptings. Although the correspondence around those statements and the articles and letters to the editor that filled that pages of church periodicals in those years of racial tumult and unrest pointed to much hand wringing and genuine discomfort on the part of the white Mennonites who wanted to do better, this set of race-focused declarations consistently shied away from naming the racial make-up of the church itself. In short, none of the statements up through the 1960s specifically talked about the problem of racism as a white issue for which white people needed to take responsibility.

In contrast to the relative silence of Mennonites about white involvement in racism, others outside the church did name white responsibility for racism. White civil rights leaders and activists like Anne Braden, Juliette Morgan, Will Campbell, Clarence Jordan, and many others had long been calling white people to recognize the particular role they played in perpetuating a racist society. In the Mennonite community, African-American minister and civil rights activist Vincent Harding famously challenged white Mennonites in 1967 to confront “the power of Mennonite prestige, the power of middle-class respectability, the power of whiteness.”17 Yet, the vast majority of the statements authored and released by white Mennonites rendered their own racial identities invisible and therefore unexamined.

Members of the Minority Ministries Council

It was not until 1971 that a statement emerged directly engaging with racial identities in the church. The Minority Ministries Council, then only three years old, released a statement to the Mennonite Church in which they confronted “our white Christian brothers” for not accepting them “on their terms” but instead demanding that they deny their “cultures and backgrounds” in order to become assimilated into “the main stream of white America.” They confessed that they had “accepted a ‘false kind of integration’ in which all power remained in the hands of white brothers” (the repeated male reference is notable here as well). They concluded by committing themselves to speak honestly to their “white Mennonite brothers” while seeking to develop “indigenous congregations” in which they would be the “generals” and white people the “foot soldiers.”18

In far more specific and unapologetic ways than any of the statements up to that point, this 1971 statement named the racial dynamics of the church, called for authentic engagement across racial lines, and introduced – for the first time in an official statement – voices from communities of color writing as Mennonites to their co-religionists. Although limited by the idioms and practices of patriarchy and sexism, the document did what none of the previous statements had done before. It called attention to what Paul Erb had noted back in 1955, that white Mennonites had “completely conformed themselves” to the “worldly” identity of white people. Only a direct and unapologetic wrestling with that kind of conformity would move the church forward to a more authentic anti-racist identity.

I have documented two other statements in the 1970s. One was a new statement by Lancaster Conference also released in 1971 that echoed much of the conference’s previous position paper while introducing the language of “racism” for the first time. The second one was released in 1976 by participants at a Race and Reconciliation conference in Newark, New Jersey, sponsored by Evangelicals for Social Action. This was the only one of the twenty-two statements documented here to have included women in the development of the statement; in this case Lois Leidig of Canton, Ohio, and Bev Lord of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They were two of twelve signatories. Yet, neither of these two additional statements named white people or reflected on the identities of those drafting the documents.

To date, I have been unable to locate any race-focused statements by Mennonite groups in the following decade and a half through 1988.19In 1989, a joint statement by the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church entitled “A Church of Many Peoples Confronts Racism” did take on racism directly, but again the drafters did not see fit to focus their attention on white people or name them directly.20

This tabulation of Mennonite statements on race is not intended to suggest that the passing of statements is a futile exercise. We have many historical examples of faith-based statements igniting action, changing minds, and re-directing resources.

Rather this essay argues that Mennonites have had a particular history of putting pen to paper and declaring their position on “race relations.” At key junctures, the passage of those statements challenged racial discrimination both within and without the church community. But by failing to address white people as white people, those statements fostered more assimilation than they did anti-racism.21 By demanding that African Americans, Native Americans, Latinex, and Asian American members of the Mennonite church become like white people to become Mennonite, those statements did little to change the nature, structures, and power relations within the church itself.

I await with eagerness for the day when white people in the Mennonite church will truly reckon with our conformity to whiteness. I expect that a statement may assist in that work, but the true mark of movement forward will be lived out in the collective action of white Mennonites to dismantle racism both within and without the church.


  1. Paul Erb, “Nonconformity in Race Relations,” Gospel Herald, June 7, 1955, 531.
  2. Mennonite General Conference, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations,” (Hesston, Kans.: Mennonite General Conference, 1955).
  3. I have been able to document twenty-two such statements. I invite amendments and additions from readers who are aware of additional statements other than those listed at the end of this article. If you know of other race-focused statements issued by Mennonite groups between 1940 and 19990, please contact me at tobin.shearer@umontana.edu.
  4. Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010), 255.
  5. “Policy Governing the Organization of a Mennonite Colored Organization,” (Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference; Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1940).
  6. Shearer, 36-37.
  7. Ibid., 42-43.
  8. Ibid., 269.
  9. Ibid., 357-58.
  10. “Statement of Concerns of the Study Conference on Christian Community Relations,” (Laurelville, Pa., 1951).
  11. “Lancaster Conference Bishop Board Minutes,” (Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Conference, 1951).
  12. Conference, “The Way of Christian Love.”
  13. “Attitude of Bluffton College on Relationships between Races on the Campus,” (Bluffton, Ohio: Bluffton College, 1955).
  14. “Churches Respond to Race,” The Mennonite, August 6, 1963.
  15. “E.M.C. Faculty Statement on Racial Discrimination,” Gospel Herald, January 14 1964; Guy F. Hershberger, “Executive Secretary’s Report,” (Goshen, Ind.: Committee on Economic and Social Relations, 1965).
  16. “Minutes Forty-Fifth Annual Meeting Virginia Mennonite Conference,” in Minutes of the Virginia Mennonite Conference Including Historical Introduction, Statistical Section with Data on Conference Members and Her Official Statement of Christian Fundamentals (Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference, 1967).
  17. Vincent Harding, “Voices of Revolution,” The Mennonite, October 3, 1967.
  18. “Minority Statement to Mennonite Church,” (Elkhart, Ind.: Minority Ministries Council, 1971).
  19. As noted above, I would invite readers to alert me to any statements not named here.
  20. http://home.mennonitechurch.ca/1989-racism (accessed October 2, 2019).
  21. Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning (New York: Bold Type Books, 2016), 2.

The Insurance Problem

September’s issue of The Mennonite focuses on Mennonites and healthcare costs. In a moment of synchronicity, my own family has recently been facing unexpected healthcare costs after a member of my family had a routine medical procedure to screen for cancer. We were relieved to hear the positive news of a clean bill of health, but soon became stressed as the medical bills began to arrive. The EOBs rolled in to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, with seemingly arbitrary “adjustments,” allowed amounts, and finally, the absurdly high bottom line that we are responsible for.  I was yet again reminded of how broken our American medical system is and grew curious about the historical origins of our current insurance system. It’s hard to remember a time before co-pays and deductibles, HMOs and PPOs, but I quickly learned that the system, as well as American Mennonites’ embrace of it, is relatively new. So I wanted to know: what changed in the last sixty years that led to our compliance with such a system? 

What I found when I began to investigate this issue is that many American Mennonites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were vehemently opposed to most forms of insurance, specifically life insurance. Some conferences were lenient on members holding property or fire insurance, but other conferences, like Virginia Mennonite Conference, went so far as to make the holding of insurance a test of membership. Harry Brunk writes in History of Mennonites in Virginia 1900-1960 that, “In 1900 Virginia Conference was asked—”Why do we oppose life insurance? Scripture references were given as the answer and members were told to make “Christ our Life Insurance.”1

The practice of buying insurance, especially life insurance, was seen as placing one’s trust in the world and rejecting faith in God’s providence. The church also called upon its members to practice mutual aid, assisting one another financially in times of loss or hardship. This idea had strong historic roots—many Anabaptist groups since their beginnings had practiced poor relief and sharing of goods.2 This barn-raising mentality continues today in many conservative Mennonite and Amish communities, with members providing tangible and financial relief for coverage of healthcare costs, property loss, and in other times of need.3

But for some church members, especially those whose livelihood was dependent on farms or property, insurance was still tempting. In order to help their members avoid an unequal yoke with insurance companies, some conferences responded by creating “Aid Plans” for property and automobiles.4 Others established mutual aid societies, to cover many possible pitfalls of life like storm damage, fire, or to help with burial costs.5 These were highly successful for a time, providing mutual aid to members in need, but began to hit snags as the US government tightened up regulations surrounding insurance coverage.6  After the Great Depression and during the onset of the Second World War there was agitation by some in the Mennonite Church for a more formalized, church-wide form of mutual aid to coordinate aid for church members in times of need.7

Mennonite Mutual Aid (MMA) came about at a time of upheaval and transition in the Mennonite church and the world. It came on the heels of World War II after many years of negotiation and work by emerging leaders in the church including H.S. Bender, Chris Graber, Guy Hershberger, and Orie O. Miller. Al Keim writes in his essay “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid” that the fact that MMA “so long in gestation, should be born at this pivotal moment of leadership change was no accident. Both the war and the new generation of leaders made it happen.”8 It also came at a time where Mennonite nonconformity was being tested, and many feared that worldliness and assimilation were taking hold. 

At the same moment, in 1945, an Insurance Study Committee was created by Virginia Mennonite Conference, comprised of George R. Brunk II, Aldine Brenneman, and Clarence Huber. It appears to have been created in response to some members acquiring automobile and property insurance and an overall relaxation of opposition to insurance in the laity. After thorough scriptural examination, the committee delivered a report on May 24 that doubled down on the belief that forms of insurance such as automobile and property, “though generally thought to be less objectionable” than life insurance, “are, in fact, we believe, opening wedges that may bring us finally to the point of recognizing and tolerating insurance of life itself.” They called for the church to better educate members about the perils of insurance, create aid plans for hospitalization and burial costs, and “continue to make Life Insurance a test of membership.”9

But the wedges had already been opening in Mennonite communities in other areas of the country, and just a week after this VMC group delivered their report, on May 31, 1945, a church wide mutual aid agency was born.10 Although the idea garnered support from many, the more conservative conferences were not easily convinced. Keim writes that “Graber presented the plan to both the Virginia and Pacific Coast conferences” and was “dismayed when both conferences failed to endorse the plan.” When he complained to Guy Hershberger, Hershberger replied that “Virginia…and Oregon…are afraid of everything new as being something worldly.”11 Keim notes that to many of those conservative conferences, “the organizational good sense of the new generation of leaders looked to some . . . like a worldly trend” and “the insurance features of the aid plan seemed to have more to do with clever means of risk reduction than with New Testament mutual aid.”12 Ultimately, through the strong leadership of a few and the slow acquiescence of many, the roots of MMA took hold. It quickly added a number of aid policies, including those for “property loss, sickness, or death.”13

As the insurance industry grew in the United States, so did Mennonite church members’ desire for insurance and so did MMA’s offering of more traditional insurance plans. This shift toward acceptance was likely driven by urbanization, education, and overall assimilation of the constituency, increasing government regulations for insurance, and a loss of tight-knit communities based in rural areas. In the realm of health care specifically, the introduction of Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) and Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs) along with healthcare reform in the 1990s limited the options MMA (now Everence) could provide its members. Keith Graber Miller writes in his 1995 essay “Mennonite Mutual Aid: a Margin of Difference?” that “the result is that Mennonite Mutual Aid’s HMO and PPO health products become increasingly like those sold through other commercial companies.”14

Nearly twenty-five years after Graber Miller wrote that, it appears that the Mennonite Church has fully embraced, or at least complied with, the insurance industry it once actively worked to avoid. Those of us who work at Mennonite institutions are offered plans by our employers that include health insurance, dental and vision insurance, life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment insurance, short term disability, and on and on. Most of these plans are brokered by Everence (formerly MMA), but come through large providers such as Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. There is no longer a conversation about whether or not insurance is worldly or scripturally sound, it is simply a benefit we all expect with our employment. 

Yet I find myself wishing we as a church could do better than this status quo. It is naive to hope that a denomination like MCUSA could return to the forms of mutual aid encouraged by early Mennonite leaders or practiced by the tight-knit communities of the Amish and Conservative Mennonites. But our complicity in these systems that cause pain and financial ruin to so many in our country troubles me. 

With an understanding of the historical perspectives within the church on insurance and its pitfalls, I wonder if there is a place for Mennonites to speak into these issues and imagine a system whose first priority is caring for the sick, not making a profit. I doubt the conservative Mennonite leaders in Virginia and Oregon could have foreseen our convoluted dealings with insurance companies issues 80 years ago, but I can’t help but feel that their caution should have been heeded rather than being dismissed as the cries of fearful sectarians unwilling to embrace change. They saw a different way forward, rejecting capitalist impulses, and tried to put their faith in God and the church.  How can we do the same today?


  1. Harry A. Brunk. History of Mennonites in Virginia, 1900-1960. (Verona, Va: McClure Printing Company, Inc., 1972.), 447. 
  2. Albert N. Keim, “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid,” in Building Communities of Compassion, ed. Willard M. Swartley and Donald B. Kraybill (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 193. 
  3. Kristyn Rohrer and Lauren Dundes. 2016. “Sharing the Load: Amish Healthcare Financing.” Healthcare, No. 4: 92. doi:10.3390/healthcare4040092. 
  4. Brunk. History of Mennonites in Virginia, 1900-1960, 467-477. 
  5. Steven M. Nolt, “Fifty Year Partners: Mennonite Mutual Aid and the Church,” in Building Communities of Compassion, ed. Willard M. Swartley and Donald B. Kraybill (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 214. 
  6. Brunk. History of Mennonites in Virginia, 1900-1960, 467-477. 
  7. Keim, “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid,” 194. 
  8. Keim, “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid,” 204. 
  9. Report of the Insurance Study Committee, May 24, 1945. Insurance. Vertical File. Menno Simons Historical Library. 
  10. Keim, “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid,” 207. 
  11. Keim, “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid,” 206. 
  12. Keim, “My Brother’s Keeper: Origins of Mennonite Mutual Aid,” 208. 
  13.  Nolt, “Fifty Year Partners: Mennonite Mutual Aid and the Church,” 216. 
  14. Keith Graber Miller, “Mennonite Mutual Aid: a Margin of Difference?” Building Communities of Compassion, ed. Willard M. Swartley and Donald B. Kraybill (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 270. 

Lives of Service

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letters from June 1924 mark the first exchange of correspondence between Joseph D. Graber and Minnie Swartzendruber about their decision to commit their lives to mission work.
These letters from June 1924 mark the first exchange of correspondence between Joseph D. Graber and Minnie Swartzendruber about their decision to commit their lives to mission work. Just over a year later, the two were married and appointed as missionaries to India through the Mennonite Board of Missions. Source: Joseph Daniel and Minnie (Swartzendruber) Graber Papers, 1920-1978. Box 14, Folder 4 and Box 15, Folder 1. HM1-503. Mennonite Church USA Archives. Elkhart, Indiana.

As young students in their early 20s, J.D. Graber and Minnie Swartzendruber thought they were headed toward careers as educators. A new set of correspondence at the Mennonite Church USA Archives sheds light on their early lives, their courtship, and their decision to serve as missionaries in India. The mostly handwritten letters between the two span a period of four years (1921-1925) and contain rich details about their family life, social networks, educational pursuits, and Mennonite faith.

About the decision to serve in India, J. D. wrote, “I’m absolutely sure if we make this a matter of earnest prayer God will take care of all difficulties and will open the door for us to go if He wants our lives in India.” In her letter of response, Minnie wrote that God’s strength gave her courage “and makes me willing that our comfortable little home in some college town should fade away. Such is alluring to a young lover’s eye but God forbid it should blind our eyes from the realities of life, the responsibility to be met, and the joy of doing it.”

After seventeen years in India, J. D. later served as the first full-time general secretary of the Mennonite Board of Missions from 1944 to 1967. Minnie was the president of the Women’s Missionary and Service Commission from 1950 to 1959 and spoke widely throughout the church. The collection also includes diaries and journals, sermon notes, and a series of published and unpublished manuscripts that J. D. authored over the course of his career.

The Radical Mennonite Union

Down with Fat-Cat Christianity
Obscenity is stuffing yourself and your garbage can while watching
with quiet glee as ‘our Boys’ burn rice paddies in Vietnam,
Happiness is smashing the state
Before change, understanding; before understanding, confrontation.
Anabaptists have a persecution complex, or is it prosecution complex?
A New Christianity for a New Religious Age
God is alive; Magic is Afoot
“Welcome to you who read me today. Welcome to you who put my heart down. Welcome to you, darling and friend, who miss me forever in your trip to the end.”

Cohen1

A few years ago, while researching the history of Mennonite involvement in labour unions for my book NOT Talking Union, I came across a file at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario labelled “Radical Mennonite Union.”2 Sadly, the Radical Mennonite Union was not actually a labour union. But it was such an interesting entity that I was compelled to do further research. That research was published as the final chapter in an edited volume titled Entangling Migration.

Surprisingly, Braun saw my Entangling Migration chapter and contacted me, inviting me to conduct oral history interviews with him at his current residence in Oregon, and to accept his personal papers for archival deposit. Though Braun has revised his understanding of the significance of his past activism, the Radical Mennonite Union offers an insight into the diversity of belief in the post-1970 North American Mennonite community. Braun’s story is a reminder that even “conservative” religious groups have radicals among them, that the failure of communities to embrace those radicals sometimes leads to their disaffection, and that what was once radical can become mainstream.

The Radical Mennonite Union (RMU) was a university student group led by John Braun, a Simon Fraser University student from Abbotsford, British Columbia. Braun founded the RMU in 1968, influenced by the Vietnam War draft resistance movement, the Students for a Democratic University (SDU) at SFU, and the SDU’s subsequent occupation of an SFU administration building in 1968. Braun produced what he now describes as “the most ill-tempered thing ever written”:3 the RMU Manifesto. The Manifesto’s purported goal was to unite the ideals of the New Left with those of Anabaptism.

Copies of the Manifesto rapidly spread throughout North America, reproduced in various underground student newspapers and distributed by mail to various professors, leftist students, communes, and intentional communities. The Radical Mennonite Union, a group of some two dozen people in British Columbia committed to the content of the Manifesto, undertook various activities in an attempt to radicalize young Mennonites and, by extension, the church. In 1972, Braun even secured a Canada Council grant for this purpose, renting a van to drive across Canada and meet with other young Mennonite dissidents to discuss the potential for radicalizing the Mennonite church.4

The RMU Manifesto focused on four key issues in Mennonite theology and society: Mennonites’ failure to engage with political and social issues; undemocratic practices within the Mennonite church; the failures of Mennonite schools and colleges; and Mennonites’ general conservatism. The Manifesto’s radicalism lies both in its content and its forms of expression: Mennonite church members, for example, are described as “passive, docile idiots… human near-vegetables incapable of facing life with any kind of honesty.”5 The Mennonite church is accused of promoting a “rigid theology and outdated social mores” as well as supporting “the status quo in the political sphere.” Nonetheless, the church itself is not rejected, but instead is called to radically transform itself. Examples of such transformation are offered, including active support of war resisters, the promotion of “free and open discussion of all theology, doctrines, rules, etc.,” and the equal treatment of women. Mennonite schools (secondary and post-secondary) are called to a similar radical transformation. But the transformation was to extend beyond the walls of the churches and schools, and into the broader, non-Mennonite society, since “to honestly follow Christ in this day is to make the social revolution.”

In retrospect, Braun believes that his formation of the Radical Mennonite Union was somewhat disingenuous. He wanted to “build up credibility as a radical on campus more so than actually try to change anything in the Mennonite world, which is pretty impossible.”6 And yet he fairly quickly experienced disillusionment with the New Left as it degenerated into sectarianism and (in some instances) violence. The legacy of the Radical Mennonite Union, for him today, is the “need to work to make the world a better place for the less fortunate.”7 His politics when he was an SFU student were “revolutionary and theatrical.” Now, he believes that “politics can’t be a matter of pure ideas” but must be a “matter of real solutions to real problems.”

Braun’s story reveals that Mennonitism is neither static nor cohesive, and that what was once radical can become mainstream. Braun’s ideas regarding the Mennonite church in the 1960s and 1970s, as outlined in his Manifesto (and his subsequent Confession of Faith), were no longer radical by the turn of the millennium. Much of that for which he had agitated has been embraced by the denominations of both the Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Brethren Church: acceptance of war resistance, greater involvement of women in decision-making within the church, relaxation of prohibitions on lifestyle choices like smoking or movie theatre attendance, greater understanding of the role of colonialism in Canadian society, and even cooperation with non-Christians in social protests (such as the Women’s March).


  1. John Braun, “A Confession of Faith,” 32, John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON. The final three sentences are a quotation from Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers.
  2. John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON.
  3. John Braun, interview by Janis Thiessen, McMinnville OR, 14 June 2016, audio recording, John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON.
  4. I presented a paper about this at the A People of Diversity: Mennonites in Canada Since 1970 conference in Winnipeg in 2018, and published an expanded version of that talk and this blog post as “John Braun and the Radical Mennonite Union,” Journal of Mennonite Studies37 (2019): 119-32.
  5. John Braun, “Manifesto of the Radical Mennonite Union,” typescript, John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON.
  6. John Braun, interview by Janis Thiessen, McMinnville OR, 14 June 2016, audio recording, John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON.
  7. Ibid.

Reflections on Selective Immigration and Questions of Belonging

There is a strange thing about academia, namely, that once a book or article is published, one’s research has often moved to other topics. My research remains related to larger questions involved in my book about Mennonites and Mormons in Mexico, such as the relative power or weakness of the nation-state, and how and why a nation-state might include or exclude various minority groups, but no longer focuses on a group of people related to the topic of Anabaptism. More importantly, for the purposes of this short post, none of my recent research would help me write a post for this blog.

Then, last week, I received an invitation to speak about the work that led me to this blog in the first place, and I am reminded that while Mennonites are not the largest or most important group in Mexico (my area of study) let alone anywhere else, the questions that came up in my research for Liminal Sovereignty, remain relevant. The country where I live (the USA), the country I’m from (Canada), and the country I study (Mexico) are all trying to regulate who gets to come in.

I am particularly struck by the commonalities between my own experience as an immigrant to the United States, and those of early Mennonite immigrants to Mexico. I moved to the US for a job, and my current employer was willing to sponsor me to become a permanent resident. This process – which is inaccessible to millions of undocumented immigrants, and incredibly lengthy for people who immigrate for the purposes of family reunification – was remarkably easy for me. My employer has an office to do most of the work, to coach me for my interview, to make sure every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed. I also am white, middle class, educated and speak English in a way that makes people immediately realize these things about me.

I think again about the Low German Mennonites who migrated to Mexico. They also had “brokers” who dealt with the Mexican government to negotiate their initial immigration and “brokers,” like David Redekop, who could assist them with their dealings with Mexican officials once they arrived. I still wonder, though, how with all the troubles that these people face how they went about creating a new life, how they went about trying to understand the ways that Mexican agrarian reform would affect them, and how, in more recent years, their lives would be changed by drug trafficking.

All this wondering is because I want to understand who these people were, what they were doing, and why. Sometimes, the way the past resonates with our lives today can give us some indications.

Language Shift among Weaverland Conference Mennonites

In a post to this blog last year I discussed the use of Pennsylvania Dutch among Weaverland Conference Mennonites (also known as Horning or Black-bumper Mennonites). Although they are closely connected to the Groffdale Conference (Wenger or Team Mennonites), with whom they share an Old Order affiliation since 1927, when the two conferences divided over the use of the automobile, the less tradition-minded Weaverland Conference has seen a shift away from the use of German in worship in favor of English.

In many Weaverland families, active use of Pennsylvania Dutch as an everyday language continues today, however there, too, the shift to English is evident. For their part, Groffdale Conference Mennonites maintain both German in church and Pennsylvania Dutch as a community language. The gradual transition from German/Pennsylvania Dutch to English within the Weaverland Conference parallels the experience of the Beachy Amish, whose split from their Old Order brethren also dates to 1927. Use of English in worship has become the norm in Beachy congregations and proficiency in Pennsylvania Dutch has declined among younger members.

An astute witness of the changing language situation among traditional Mennonites is the historian Amos B. Hoover, who together with his wife Nora founded Muddy Creek Farm Library on their farm near Ephrata, Pennsylvania, in 1956. This library is a leading repository of documents related to the history of traditional Anabaptists. As a Weaverland Conference member who was born in 1933, Hoover has had a unique vantage point from which he has observed and written about numerous changes in the life of his church and related groups.

The language question has been of special interest to Hoover. Recently, he has written a fascinating volume that complements wonderfully the scholarship on Anabaptists and their languages. Titled German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage (Ephrata, Pa.: Muddy Creek Farm Library, 2018), Hoover’s book is a rich compendium of primary and secondary resources he has gathered over decades, many of which have not been easily accessible to researchers. Just as important as the documentary material Hoover shares is his analysis of the language trends he has observed. In this way Hoover combines an insider’s perspective with scholarly objectivity, making this an invaluable resource for a range of readers.

The subtitle of the book is “Struggles with Language Change among Mennonites,” which points to the fact that the shift from German/Pennsylvania Dutch to English has not been one universally welcomed among Hoover’s brethren. As Mennonites in this country and Canada have felt the pull of modernity, different opinions on the continued use of German have emerged. Among those groups who sought formal training for their ministers, pursued mission work, and desired to sponsor Sunday schools for their children, the shift to English made sense. Most Old Orders, however, who have preferred to hold the line on these and other changes, are committed to “keeping Dutch.” Interestingly, Hoover himself views the shift to English with regret. As he comments on p. 247 of his book, “… our losses have been great by tossing our native tongue.”

Hoover begins his book with an introductory essay in which he presents six theses about language based on his experience and supported by the documentation in the chapters that follow. I will paraphrase these six theses, which are given on page 15.

  1. Most Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups have successfully maintained some form of German since their arrival in America nearly three centuries ago.
  2. Language is a central part of the religious expression of Old Orders (and certainly many other people of faith as well), therefore the choice of which specific language a group uses will have spiritual implications. Hoover sees the preference of English over German in hymnody (or vice versa) as an especially important example in this regard.
  3. The increasing importance of English as a language of literacy has “opened the door to mainstream Protestant theology.”
  4. Bi- or multilingualism is a good thing for anyone, but brings special benefits to Christians by making multiple translations of Scripture accessible.
  5. Whenever North American Mennonites have experienced divisions over the past nearly two centuries, language has played at least some role, if not the central one.
  6. As a practical matter, knowledge of German (including the old typeface and handwritten script) and Pennsylvania Dutch is important for researchers to be able to engage with many primary historical documents.

Hoover’s book is divided into eight parts. The three main sections of the book, part II “Personal Interviews, and Observations on Language Related Issues,” (35–137); part III “Language Issues Mentioned in Previously Unpublished Documents,” (141–165); and part IV “Language Issues Mentioned in Previously Published Sources,” 169–241), are framed by two essays by Hoover, “Introduction to Language Transition among Mennonites” (15–28) and “The Author’s Summary on PA German” (247–252). The book concludes with brief “Biographical Sketches of Contributors to this Study” (253–275), a list of language-related materials held in the Muddy Creek Farm Library (277­–282), and an index (283–311).

I will share a few gems from part II, which is essentially a journal assembled by Hoover that includes hundreds of entries describing community events and conversations related to language use that he either observed or participated in between 1959 and 2017. One theme that recurs in many of these conversations is the linkage of the preference of English over German with the sin of pride. One illustrative quote is attributed to Bishop Joseph O. Wenger (1868–1956), who led the Groffdale Conference at the time of the 1927 division. (In Pennsylvania Dutch, Groffdale Mennonites are referred to this day as Tscho Wenger ‘Joe Wengers’.) Documenting a conversation that he had with a contemporary of Wenger, David K. Martin (1915–2012), in 1975, Hoover shares the following (p. 59):

[Q]uoting Joe Wenger in Zeigness [commentary after an Old Order sermon]: “Sis nau so weit as es englisch Singes rei komme is an die Singings, aber die Junge sette doch jo net Stimmig singe. Sis nix letz mit die englisch Sproche. Es scheint aber won d[ie] Deutsche leit mohl englisch warre welle, dann dutt der Hochmut sich ei stelle.”

This is such a classic statement and quote of Joe Wenger, that I also write it in English. It is undated but early in the 1920s. This is based on the fact that the singing schools were restarted in 1920 and there was a sentiment among some people that we need to do something for the young people even if they sing some English: “It has now changed to the point that English singing came into use at the young people’s singings, but youth should not sing four-part harmony. There is really no problem with the [English] language, but it appears that when German people make an effort to become English then pride is getting a foothold.”

The connection between the use of English and pride (Hochmut) is a strong one for many tradition-minded Mennonites. In a conversation from 1976 that Hoover records, his interlocutor, Minister Wesley P. Martin (1898–1985), shared the following (pp. 60–61):

We always preached in German. In 1917, we elected a minister and my father Bishop Joseph Martin preached the qualification sermon and he cautioned the congregation that perhaps in this day and age the time is here that we should choose a minister that can preach some English. When he was through old Elias (Eli) Hornberger got up and testified, “Des English predige is nix weder hochmut.” [This English preaching is nothing but arrogance.] They got a real Dutchman too. It was Davy Hornberger.

Other comments linking language use to Scripture are especially interesting. Hoover quotes a conversation he had with a Weaverland Conference minister, Lester B. Martin (b. 1936), in 1978, in which speaking English with a “Dutchy” accent, which is regularly stigmatized, may not be such a bad thing (p. 69):

We should not be ashamed of our [English] language if it contains a PA Dutch accent, and if we cannot speak “as the world.” This may be as a “thorn in the flesh” or even as a means of saving our souls as Peter’s Galilean accent did when he was told “thy speech betrayeth thee,” thus Peter repented.

Indeed, other brethren with whom Hoover spoke extended the equation of the use of English with pride by connecting maintenance of German/Pennsylvania Dutch with the cardinal virtue of Old Order life, humility (Demut). As Hoover recalls from a conversation with another Weaverland Conference minister, Luke N. Good (1928–2015), in 1973 (pp. 52, 54):

Ich mehn es Deutsch es mir hen is ken g’schrivene sproch awwer is genunk für helfe uns zammenhalte. Gott hut die sproche verwechselt un es hut gedient zum gute, nau vielleicht sette mir net schaffe für en unified sproch. Ich denk als oft, glei as ich bei die gmeh war hut en alte fraa grote, “D[ie] schul kinner sette aa wenig lerne ihr kreitz drage, mit die gleder dracht” un ich mehn aa so mit die sproch. Sis gut won sie wenig verschpot warre.” [I believe though the German we have is not a written language, yet it is enough to help keep us together (as a people). God confused the languages, and it served a good purpose, now maybe we should not strive for a unified language. I often think how an old sister counseled, soon after I had joined the church, that “children should also learn something about bearing their cross, with their clothing style.” I think also it is thus with the language. It is good for them to endure a little ridicule.]

The interpretation of the confusion of tongues after the fall of the Tower of Babel as offering a reminder of the importance of humility, with multilingualism as its tangible expression, is a profound one.

Amos B. Hoover’s contributions to the documentation of Old Order history are many, as German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage attests.

Archive Spotlight: The Thomas A. and Katherine (Gingrich) Brady Collection

This past semester I had the privilege of spending a few months looking through a new collection donated to the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, housed in the Milton Good Library at Conrad Grebel University College. The collection is a gift from Thomas A. Brady Jr. and Katherine Gingrich Brady. Thomas Brady, the Sather Professor Emeritus of History at UC Berkeley and his wife Katherine, an expert paleographer, have spent decades studying the history of the Reformation(s) in Strasbourg and Reformation-era politics more broadly.1 During that time, they gathered a wealth of early modern primary sources on microfilm, which they have now donated to Conrad Grebel University College. The collection promises to be a great resource for scholars interested in the late medieval/early modern history of Strasbourg and politics in the Reformation era.

The Grande-Ile, the heart of Strasbourg’s old town, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. Many of the buildings first erected in the medieval and early modern periods are still standing there today. Photo by the author.

The city of Strasbourg is of particular interest to scholars of early Anabaptist history, both for the number and diversity of Anabaptists it attracted and the relatively mild punishments Anabaptists and other religious dissenters faced there. While Strasbourg’s Anabaptists alone numbered as many as 2000 in 1530—a substantial minority of the city’s population—only two Reformation-era non-conformists received a death sentence from Strasbourg’s magistrates: Claus Frey, who practiced bigamy, and Thomas Salzmann, who called Christ an imposter.2 As the spiritualist chronicler Sebastian Franck put it, “he whom one hangs elsewhere, one drives out of Strasbourg with rods.”3 While some scholars have attributed Strasbourg’s relative tolerance for dissent to the irenicism of its reformers—and Martin Bucer, Wolfgang Capito, and Mathis Zell were certainly less quick to burn bridges than many of their contemporaries—Brady has argued convincingly that the primary impetus for toleration came from Strasbourg’s magistrates, who sought peace and order more than they sought conformity.4 While few of the documents in the collection deal directly with Anabaptists, the primary sources the Bradys donated shed light on the inner workings of Strasbourg politics and the history of the city leading up to and during the Reformation era, all of which helps to illuminate the context in which so many sixteenth-century Anabaptists managed to survive and even thrive to some extent.

The majority of the microfilms in the collection contain copies of documents housed in the Archives de la ville et de l’Eurométropole de Strasbourg (the Strasbourg municipal archives, which also house the Archives de St. Thomas, dedicated to Strasbourg church history), the Archives départementales du Bas-Rhin (the regional archives for the Lower Rhine), and the Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg (the Strasbourg university library, which houses a substantial collection of premodern manuscripts and rare books). Other microfilms include copies of documents from a number of other European and North American libraries and archives, including the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, the Weimar Staatsarchiv, the Danish Royal Library, the Newberry Library, and the Harvard University Library. The contents of these documents include multiple late medieval and early modern chronicles of Strasbourg history, large amounts of sixteenth-century correspondence from Strasbourg’s Reformation-era political and religious leaders (including the entire Thesaurus Baumianus, a collection of nineteenth-century copies of the Strasbourg reformers’ correspondence), sixteenth-century notes from Strasbourg Senate meetings (particularly focused on the years of the Schmalkaldic War), and many other treasures. For scholars interested in Reformation-era religion and politics, the collection promises to yield the raw material for several fascinating projects.


  1. Among Professor Brady’s best-known books are Ruling Class, Regime, and Reformation at Strasbourg, 1520-1555 (Leiden: Brill, 1978), Protestant Politics: Jacob Sturm (1489-1553) and the German Reformation (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1995), and German Histories in the Age of Reformations, 1400-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  2. John David Derksen, From radicals to survivors: Strasbourg’s religious nonconformists over two generations, 1525-1570 (Goy-Houten, Netherlands: Hes & de Graaf Pub., 2002), 53; Camill Gerbert, Geschichte der Strassburger Sectenbewegung zur Zeit der Reformation, 1524-1534 (Strasbourg: Heitz & Mundel, 1889), ix.
  3. Cited in Bodo Brinkman and Berthold Hinz, Hexenlust und Sündenfall: Die Seltsamen Phantasien des Hans Baldung Grien (Petersberg: Imhof, 2007), 181.
  4. Brady, Ruling Class, 247n43.